More discipline = fewer flags

There's a reason Tennessee is the least penalized team in the Southeastern Conference. It's the same reason the Vols haven't had an off-the-field incident since Lane Kiffin became head coach.

The key is discipline, something the Vol coaching staff stresses - on the field and off - with the same gusto that it stresses blocking and tackling.

"We've talked so much about the way we want our players to be off the field and the way we want to practice with discipline," Kiffin said earlier today. "I believe that carries over to Saturday.

"You don't all of a sudden become disciplined on Saturday. You become disciplined by the way you do things during the week and during the offseason. Our players have done that, and we need to keep it up."

After incurring six penalties for 45 yards in Game 1 vs. Western Kentucky, Tennessee was flagged just twice for 10 yards in Game 2 vs. UCLA and three times for 40 yards in Game 3 at Florida.

All told, the Vols have been penalized a mere 11 times - half as many times as their opponents (22). In addition, Tennessee has incurred roughly half as many penalty yards (95) as its opponents (167).

"I think it's the emphasis in practice on doing the little things right - not holding, not jumping offsides," junior defensive end Chris Walker said. "Anytime we jump offsides or have a penalty in practice we have to take a lap, so I think that's just the mental discipline we have."

Asked if a penalty lap in August actually can prevent an in-game mistake in September, Walker nodded.

"Yeah, it really does," he said. "After you've been out there for four plays, then you jump offsides and have to go around the whole field, it kind of gets your mind right."

Senior center Cody Sullins agreed that the discipline Tennessee's coaches demand in practice has made the Vols more precise in the way they execute during games.

"It's just the way we go about practice," he said. "We've got those referees out there every practice, watching us for holding penalties, false starts and things like that.

"It's how much the coaches emphasize it and how much they stress discipline and not having penalties. If you have a penalty - you false-start or you have a holding call - they'll take you out (of the lineup) and you'll run a lap every time you do it. They really stress it in practice, and I think it pays off."

Naturally, there is a fine line between being careful to avoid penalties and being so cautious that you become tentative. Vol coaches apparently know where to draw that line.

"Yeah, they want you to play aggressive," Sullins said. "I'm sure they'll take you out if you're not playing aggressive, too. It's one of those things you learn to do. They tell you to block as hard as you can and not get penalties. It becomes second nature. You get used to blocking aggressively but also within the rules."

Tennessee is not going to out-talent many of its 2009 opponents, so several outcomes may come down to whether or not it can out-execute its foe. That's why Kiffin is so encouraged by the Vols' ability to play aggressively without incurring penalties.

"I'm excited about the way our players are playing," he said. "They're playing with very good discipline, playing with good poise. They're not getting late-hit penalties. Our defense has not had an accepted penalty in two weeks now.... It's very good to see.

"We're the least penalized team per game in the SEC, and that's a big deal for us. We always want to do that but especially when you come in your first year."

Kiffin can't claim the credit for the idea of making players run a lap as punishment for practice penalties. He borrowed the concept from Eric Mangini, then coaching the New York Jets, while Kiffin was a rookie head man with the Oakland Raiders in 2007.

"It seems to be working," Kiffin noted, "but this is three games. We've got to continue to do it. We make a big emphasis all week on penalties in the meetings, pointing 'em out.

"Coach Kif (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin) does a great job of pulling significant penalties of other teams around the conference from the week before, putting 'em on film and saying, 'Here's a decision we don't want to make.' Our guys have responded."

Obviously.


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